Mal watched as little Rebecca made her way across the floor. She was making an attempt at trying to keep up with her much faster - and older - brothers. He remembered Malcolm being this age, perfecting the art of crawling, very clearly. There were days the five years seemed forever ago and some it seemed like yesterday.
He wasn't sure who was more shocked by the fact he and River were actually making a marriage onboard Serenity work. Him, her, or the crew. It didn't much matter anymore who had doubts, they were kind of pointless now. If there were any nagging doubts left over from Malcolm, they went by the wayside as soon as he saw Peter with his own eyes.
Rebecca brought him away from his thoughts as she fell the short distance to the floor, a startled look on her face. She really wanted to be as fast as the two boys. He didn't need to be able to read minds to know that.
Peter was just about four; Irish twins he and Malcolm had been referred to a time or two. Memories of his crawling were blurred. He wondered if that was normal, you remember the first one most because everything's so new.
Rebecca was the earliest learner of the three, he knew that much. Peter hadn't been too intent on crawling any sooner than was necessary. Perhaps that was because he and Malcolm were barely a year apart. That had been planned. Rebecca had been a bit of a surprise, and in some ways Mal loved her a bit more because of it. No planning, no trying, no conscious thought. Just River one day telling him he was about to become a father again.
Soon she would be walking and then all hell would break loose on Serenity one last time. Malcolm looked a little like River, Mal didn't see much of her in him though, truthfully. So, whoever they'd mixed in with her gene pool must have had dominant features. Peter was the spitting image of him. He didn't have anything left of his childhood but the memories, no photographs or anything, but he remembered what he looked like well enough. And Rebecca, well, as fitting she took after her mother.
The mother in question was nestled in his lap, paging through a book he knew he couldn't begin to understand. Her mind, now that it was for the most part clear, was like a sponge. She wanted to read anything and everything she could get her hands on. By this point, she probably knew more about the workings of Serenity by way of having read the manuals at least twice when she had nothing else available to read.
Simon told Mal that was how she'd been as a child, so he suspected by the time all was said and done they'd have a full-blown library aboard Serenity, too. She was well on her way to seeing one was started anyway.
He loved that about her, and from everything he could garner so far all three of their children had minds like their mother's. Both the sponge part and the reader part. Troubling. To say the least. When they were older he wouldn't be able to get away with anything! Not that he could now, but four readers certainly spoke of the odds being stacked against not just him but his crew.
"He is not stupid," she murmured. "And she likes that he is not a reader. Calms her mind, soothes her soul."
"He knows," he said, no longer unaccustomed to talking about himself in the third person. "He just pales in comparison to the four brains currently surrounding him."
"We all still love him anyway."
She turned on his lap then, legs going around his waist. Three children hadn't had the least amount of negative effect on her body. She was still as petite as the day he'd first set eyes on her. Filled out some in a few places that needed filling out in. But overall, she was the same and still as agile as a cat. Rebecca was like that, too. She'd be a dancer like her mother, and would be prone to touring places in Serenity she had no business being merely because she could get to them without anyone knowing.
His arms went around her, sliding to her ass so he could support her. "He loves all of them, too."
"Even the mother?"
"Especially the mother. Look at what I had before I met you and look at what I have now. They might maybe should be in school one day, little Malcolm especially now, but you're smart enough you can teach him yourself. I have a family. You have any idea how good that feels after going so long without? Serenity was a family, my crew was my family, but I've come to learn over the past six years it ain't no substitute for the real deal. I'd still die for them, but those three I'd take whoever tried to hurt them to hell with me in the process of dying."
"Such a loyal man and yet you fail to see what everyone else does."
"You opened me up to that. No one else could I wager."
She rested her head against his, watching from the corner of her eye as Rebecca crawled toward them. Malcolm and Peter were busily playing with some blocks on the other side of the room, building some type of fort it looked like. They steered clear of little Rebecca now that she was mobile. She'd more than once tipped over one of their creations through no fault of her own. They didn't understand that, though.
"You sure you're all right with no more?" he asked. They'd both decided when Rebecca had been a girl to stop where they were. They had three healthy children. They didn't have all the room in the world on Serenity, but Malcolm and Peter enjoyed sleeping in a bunk near their Uncle Simon, leaving Rebecca to the nursery that had six years ago been a plain bunk. Now it was full of frilly things, girlish things. Pink things. So, if another one was in order, space could be found.
Malcolm in particular, not only enjoyed Uncle Simon but had a fondness for Jayne and the type of things the merc could teach him. That had bothered Mal until River had assured him their son would be all right. Alliance-made or not he would still grow up their way. A curiosity of guns and weapons did not an assassin make.
"All right. Just saying. This is very definitely a speak now or forever hold your peace type deal."
"I do enjoy making them and will gladly act out the part as much as the husband wishes."
He regarded her then. "The fact you can say that after going through what you went through three times amazes me."
None of her deliveries had been easy. Malcolm's had by far been the hardest, but Peter and Rebecca had been no cake walk either.
"Simon says the procedure is easy enough."
"But not painless," she said.
"It doesn't seem like much compared to what you went through having them."
"All right. If you're sure."
"Well, I don't know that we have much choice. The idea of you being altered in any way bothers me. So, that leaves me. I don't trust other methods, no matter how reliable Simon says they are. We do seem to have the art of making of them down pat, don't we?"
She had the audacity to blush. He found it one of the most endearing things about her. After all they'd done together, been through as not just a couple but as part of Serenity's crew. And she still got embarrassed about the most basic things.
Rebecca managed to make her way to the chair Kaylee was sitting on opposite Simon. He was trying to teach her how to play chess. From the look of things, he was getting more frustrated by the fact she wasn't learning the game more than she was. Kaylee was just having a good time.
Rebecca grabbed onto the chair's leg and pulled herself up. Mal didn't like seeing how easily she was doing that now. Ease in getting up from the crawler position meant she'd want to venture away from the chair upright.
Kaylee stooped to pick up Rebecca and brought her to her lap. Mal watched as Kaylee bounced Rebecca and cooed softly in his daughter's ear. He'd often wondered if women came with some type of unspoken about manual as to how to handle babies. Even Zoe had known how to handle little ones seemingly without flaw or nervousness.
If Kaylee felt like a substitute since Inara had taken leave of Serenity sometime around the announcement that there would be a third child for the Reynolds family she didn't show it. Mal suspected the third was proof enough the marriage was sticking. Her shuttle was still intact, ready for her to use if she so desired. She and Simon had never gotten past the friendship phase, that didn't seem to be the case with Kaylee and Simon. He suspected a time or two that Kaylee's absence from her bunk in the morning was not due to an all-night chess match as had been the case between Simon and Inara.
Truthfully, as much in common lifestyle-wise that Simon and Inara had, Mal believed the same obstacles that had existed for him did for Simon as well. It was one thing to know the woman you were involved with had bedded a man or two, maybe even twenty. But to know they were trained in the art of bedding. Well, that was just a difficult thing to get past. You'd never really know if the desire they felt for you was sincere or that of years of practice at appearing to be so.
"Always sincere," River whispered against his ear.
"Don't I know it," he said, grazing her lips with a kiss. "I don't need to be a reader to know that how you respond to me is genuine."
"And you to me."
"Got that right."
"They're talking all hush-hush again," Jayne said from his vantage point on the other side of the room. He was not so much supervising the fort Malcolm and Peter were making with their blocks and whatever else they could get their hands on as helping. A little boy at heart.
"We are not," Mal said with a low chuckle. "Some things are meant to be kept between a man and his woman, Jayne."
"Yeah, well," his eyes drifted to Simon and finally resting on Mal. "Not all of us have those."
Mal had nothing to say to that. Jayne treated his weapons better than most men treated their women, so in a way he did have a significant other. It was just an object not a person, and there were several of them. More ways for Jayne to spread the love around was his way of thinking.
Wash was busily flying them away from their latest job, Zoe was on the bridge with him. Mal was quite certain she was giving him the play-by-play of yet another successful mission. And it had been one to talk about. He'd sworn when Malcolm was born he would never, ever bring his children out on a job. He'd stood by that until being a family unit was just too perfect a cover to resist. Who would suspect the man with his wife and three young children of being a thief? They were never in any danger, he just needed anyone coming by his empty theatre seat to assume the father was off getting treats for his children.
Malcolm had picked up on something, because he was all kinds of relieved when Mal got back to his seat; job complete. One day, it would be impossible to hide from any of them what the folk on Serenity did to survive. For now, though, they were safe.
Zoe's voice came over the comm, telling them they were about to land at their next destination. A destination perhaps only River understood being a part of their plan today. He was so close to it that he'd been compelled to come look. They'd been close before, but it had never seemed fitting before now to stop. Malcolm was just big enough to fit into the smallest space suit, so he would come with. Peter and Rebecca had to stay onboard.
It seemed fitting somehow that Mal shared this experience with Malcolm over the other two. He was the product of the people who had destroyed it, left it uninhabitable. Serenity touched down and the three of them dressed before getting into the mule.
River was quiet and, for once, Malcolm was too, as if sensing this was a somber moment in his father's life. Perhaps he did sense it. He got out of the mule once they were on the ground and away from his ship a bit. He scanned the nothingness that was Shadow, a sense of loss he didn't quite understand entering his heart. There was signs of previous life here, but it was clearly dead and gone. Nothing existed here anymore, not even dust he wagered.
He recognized from the damaged buildings where they were and headed the mule in the direction he wanted to go. Needed to go. He wasn't sure why, was sure Simon would be full of some psychological babble were he to ask his brother-in-law. This is what had made him the man he was, he'd needed River to see it. Maybe she'd get a feel from it to understand why he was the way he was. Malcolm, too.
Years, too many, had gone by, but he remembered the way as if he'd left yesterday. The ranch was all but gone, destroyed by years of inactivity. There were a couple of fence posts he could see and a carcass or two were visible but that was about all that was left of his childhood home. The house while dilapidated and lopsided, stood barely hanging onto this recognizable form. Soon, anyone coming here wouldn't have a guess as to the memories the house held. Or even that a house had been here once upon a time.
Malcolm cried out. River showed no sign of being bothered by anything. Malcolm's eyes were wide through the mask he wore, frantically looking in way too many directions at once.
"It's all right, son, this is where your dad grew up. Ain't much left, can't tell that it was a decent place, held together by an upstanding woman."
River had told Mal he acted as an anchor to her, someone who settled the psychic noise down a bit. As Malcolm seemed to settle down at Mal's voice, he could only assume he did the same for the boy.
"Were she alive, I reckon she'd be rushing down those stairs about now, anxious as all get out to see you. She was a good mother. You'd have loved this place, too, when it was in its prime. More animals than you could shake a stick at. I never understood that saying, why anyone would shake sticks at things. But, you know, there it is. Plenty of food, always something to do, mischief to be had for a young, curious boy. And you are curious, ain't you?"
Malcolm merely nodded his head, Mal smiled slightly.
"Yeah, nothing wrong with that."
River was quiet. She looked fine, so Mal could only assume she was carefully treading through his mind and the memories there to see what she could find out about the curious boy that had been Malcolm Reynolds. Before he'd gone to war, before he'd had to live a life on the run. She'd told him she carefully avoided THOSE memories and he was appreciative of that fact. There were things she didn't need to see and he didn't like thinking she could relive some of his darkest moments.
"He could have a ranch of his own."
"He could, huh?" Mal said quietly, his eyes never wavering from Malcolm's. For some reason, eye contact seemed essential to keeping him soothed.
"Yes, not one this grand, but if it is what he loves."
Mal shrugged, regarding the remains of his childhood home for a brief second. Even that long seemed to be enough for Malcolm to be overcome by something. He didn't think it was fear.
"I love you and my family and will not make us sitting ducks for the Alliance to find and capture any of you."
"Perhaps one day," she said, sounding more hopeful than meddlesome.
"Perhaps at that."
She slid an arm around Malcolm's shoulders, guiding him back to the mule. "Your father needs to say good-bye," she whispered, Mal heard her, though. Maybe she'd meant for him to.
He didn't have much to leave here, nothing really, but knowing he'd be making this stop he'd purchased a silk flower at their last stop. Somehow it had seemed essential for him to move forward with the rest of his life that he formally and officially say goodbye to the past. He left it on the porch steps that he didn't dare try climbing up. One step by a man his size, maybe even a boy Malcolm's side, would probably send them collapsing.
He wasn't a man of many words, wouldn't even know what to say if he was one. He just knew that he wished his kids had grandparents, a place like this to look forward to visiting. The Tam's were still alive, but seeing them was about as impossible as seeing Malcolm's parents. So, sadly his children were doing without one of life's greatest pleasures, grandparents.
Without the suit on, he would have taken the time to wipe away the few tears that had escaped his eyes. To see this place, one he'd left when it was still in its glorious prime, look like this. Well, all he knew was that he was glad his mother wasn't alive to see it.
"All right, Ma, just needed to say good bye, let the boy get a feel for who I am, what kind of man he's dealing with. Not sure if he'll get a feel for you, too, but maybe in some way he'll carry his grandma with him because of today."
So, he was a man of words after all. He was glad no one was standing there to hear him, though. Anyone but River would think he was nuts for thinking that, but he no longer discounted people getting things that others didn't. And that included from the dead.
The trip back to Serenity went by much slower than on their way out. Perhaps that was just a state of mind. He couldn't be sure. Back onboard, free of the clunky space suit he noticed Malcolm clutched something in his gloved hand.
"What's that, son," Mal asked once River was on her way to checking on little Rebecca.
Malcolm's arm shook slightly before he opened the glove to reveal, "I'll be damned," Mal said when he saw the dirt his son's little hand clutched. "You took that?"
"No reason to stammer about it, Malcolm, it was just a question. No one owns that soil anyway. You want it, you can have it. If Shadow was a habitable planet, you'd have rights to that land. That's Reynolds land, you hear me? That means it's yours. I wish I had more of a legacy to give you than a broken down and abandoned ranch on a planet that in a few years no one will even remember existed."
Malcolm seemed uncertain, Mal wondered that was about. And then he realized, Malcolm couldn't take the space suit off without getting rid of the sand.
"Want me to hold it while you get out of that contraption?"
"Yes," he said, pouring the sand into Mal's hand. He wasn't sure how safe it was, but really it was just a little sand after all. "You're not mad?"
"Not even a little bit. I'm glad my home means something to you. Now, let's go find a bottle or something to put that in, that way you can keep it and look at it any time you want."
"Just one thing."
Malcolm paused, glancing up at Mal with large, doe-like eyes.
"You saw what it looked like before, didn't you?"
Malcolm nodded simply. He seemed hesitant to discuss his abilities with Mal.
"You have to show it to your brother and sister. One day when you think they're old enough, I trust you'll know when. I couldn't bring them with today, you understand why. So, that sand, well, that's all they'll have to know their grandparents by. I leave it to you to show it to them. To describe to them the things you saw when we were there. Tell them about the house, the animals, all of it. That's what big brothers do."
Malcolm smiled then, tucking his head against Mal's side as they went about finding something to store that little bit of sand in.